Long COVID-suicide link: Scientists warn of hidden crisis

CHICAGO/LONDON, Sept 8 (Reuters) – Scott Taylor has never been away from COVID-19.

The 56-year-old contracted the disease in the spring of 2020, about 18 months later, when he committed suicide at his home near Dallas, still not recovering, losing his health, memory and money.

“No one cares. No one wants to take the time to listen,” Tyler wrote in his last letter to friends about the plight of millions of long-term COVID patients, a disabling state that could linger for months or even days year. initial infection.

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“I can barely do laundry without being completely exhausted, pain, fatigue, pain up and down my spine. The world is dizzy, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea. It seems like I’m saying something and don’t know what I’m talking about,” Taylor added.

According to the World Health Organization, Covid-19 is a complex medical condition that is difficult to diagnose because it has more than 200 symptoms — some of which may resemble other illnesses — from exhaustion and cognitive impairment to pain, fever and palpitations.

There are no authoritative data on the frequency of suicide in patients. Several scientists from organisations such as the National Institutes of Health and the UK’s data collection agency set out to investigate potential links amid evidence of increased cases of depression and suicidal ideation among long-term COVID patients, as well as a rising number of known deaths.

“I’m sure long-term COVID is associated with suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts, suicide planning and suicide risk. We just don’t have the epidemiological data,” said Leo Sher, a psychiatrist with the Mount Sinai Health System in New York who studies mood disorders and suicidal behavior. .

Key questions the researchers are now working on include: Is a patient’s risk of suicide increasing because the virus is changing brain biology? Or, like other long-term health conditions, does losing the function they once did push people over the edge?

In general, pain disorders are a very strong predictor of suicide, as is inflammation in the brain, which some studies have linked to long-term COVID, Sher said.

“We should take this seriously,” he added.

Long-term COVID patients are nearly as likely to receive their first antidepressant prescription within 90 days of their initial COVID diagnosis, compared with people diagnosed with COVID alone, according to an analysis by Seattle-based health data firm Truveta for Reuters. twice that.

The analysis is based on data from 20 major U.S. hospital systems, including more than 1.3 million adults diagnosed with COVID and 19,000 adults with a long-term diagnosis of COVID between May 2020 and July 2022.

‘We don’t know the scope’

Little is known about the potential long-term effects of COVID-19, and governments and scientists are only now beginning to systematically study the region as they emerge from a pandemic that has itself humiliated much of the world.

According to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington, while many long-term COVID patients recover over time, about 15 percent still experience symptoms after 12 months. There are no proven treatments, and debilitating symptoms can keep patients from working.

The effects of long-term COVID, which may be associated with increased risk of mental illness and suicide, are severe; the U.S. Government Accountability Office estimated in March that the condition affects as many as 23 million people in the U.S. alone.

The prolonged COVID-19 pandemic has also left about 4.5 million people out of work, or about 2.4 percent of the U.S. workforce, Katie Bach, an employment expert at the Brookings Institution, told Congress in July.

Globally, nearly 150 million people are estimated to develop chronic COVID during the first two years of the pandemic, according to IHME.

The lack of long-term COVID surveillance in many developing countries has made the situation even more ambiguous, said Murad Khan, a professor of psychiatry at Aga Khan University in Karachi, Pakistan, who is part of an international panel of experts studying COVID-related suicide risk. -19.

“We have a huge problem, but we don’t know the magnitude of the problem,” he said.

breaking point

Time is a scarce commodity for a growing number of long-term COVID patients who say they are running out of hope and money, according to Reuters interviews with dozens of patients, family members and disease experts.

Taylor lost his job selling genomic tests to doctors in a round of layoffs in the summer of 2020, and his turning point came when his insurance through his former employer was about to expire and his application for Social Security benefits was denied, and his family Say.

“That was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said his older brother, Mark Taylor.

Heidi Ferrer, a 50-year-old TV writer from Kansas, killed herself in May 2021 to escape infection more than a year ago, her husband Nick Guthe said Post-COVID tremors and excruciating pain that kept her from walking or sleeping.

Guthe, a filmmaker who became an advocate for long-term COVID patients after the death of his wife, said he had not heard of other suicides in a network of long-term COVID patients until this winter.

“They come once a week now,” he added.

The Survivor Corps, an advocacy group for long-term coronavirus patients, said it surveyed its members in May and found that 44 percent of nearly 200 respondents said they had considered suicide.

Lauren Nichols, a board member of longtime COVID support group Body Politic, said she was aware of more than 50 longtime COVID patients who had committed suicide by connecting with family members on social media, but Reuters could not independently confirm the cases .

Nichols, 34, a logistics specialist with the U.S. Department of Transportation in Boston, said she herself has repeatedly considered suicide because she has endured more than two years of Covid-19.

Exit International provides advice to English speakers on how to seek help for euthanasia in Switzerland, where euthanasia is legal under certain tests. Director Fiona Stewart said the group, which does not track results after giving advice, has received dozens of inquiries from long-term COVID patients during the pandemic, and now about one a week.


The National Institutes of Health is tracking mental health impacts as part of its $470 million long-term COVID RECOVER study. Lead researcher Dr Stuart Katz said early results on anxiety and depression rates are expected by early September, but information on suicide will take longer.

“What we do know is that people with chronic conditions are prone to suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts, and suicide completion,” said Richard Gallagher, associate professor of child psychiatry at NYU Langone Health, part of RECOVER.

On the question of whether the virus alters the brain, Gallagher said there is some evidence that even in people with relatively mild disease, the new coronavirus can cause brain inflammation — which has been linked to suicide and depression.

“In some ways, the virus may have a direct toxic effect, and part of that is inflammation,” he said.

The University of Washington’s IHME found that prolonged COVID reduces overall health by an average of 21 percent — similar to total deafness or traumatic brain injury.

While some experts expect Omicron to be unlikely to cause long-term COVID, official UK data released this month found that 34% of the country’s 2 million long-term COVID patients developed symptoms following Omicron infection.

A UK government advisory group is looking at the suicide risk of long-term COVID patients compared to the wider population, while the Office for National Statistics (ONS) is investigating whether it can pre-assess suicide risk in long-term COVID patients, as it does for other diseases such as cancer.

Lewis Appleby, professor of psychiatry at the University of Manchester and adviser to the UK government, said: “There are concerns about long-term COVID-19 as a result of long-term disabling health conditions that may increase suicide risk.”

In fact, research in the UK and Spain found that compared to the general population, people with myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) had a six-fold increased risk of suicide, another symptom similar to long-term COVID-19. post-viral disease.

The UK’s long-term network of COVID treatment centres is also sharply oversubscribed, leaving some to despair; in June, the most recent month on record, only a third of patients were given an appointment within six weeks of a referral from a local doctor, with another three One in 10 patients had to wait more than 15 weeks.

Ruth Oshikanlu, a former midwife and health visitor in London turned pregnancy coach, said her long-standing coronavirus health problems had pushed her to the brink. She felt her life was over when she temporarily closed due to debt problems after working hard.

“I cried to the accountant and the guy kept me silent – I don’t think he wanted to be the last person to speak to me,” recalls the 48-year-old.

“Coronavirus has given you a lot of time to think,” she said. “Thank goodness I didn’t think about ending it because of my son. But I do know a lot of people who have had this kind of suicidal thoughts.”

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Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen in Chicago and Jennifer Rigby in London; Editing by Michele Gershberg and Pravin Char

Our Standard: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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